In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Development of Architecture in New Spain, 1500–1810

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Latin American Studies The Development of Architecture in New Spain, 1500–1810
Cristina Ratto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0128


During 1519, Hernán Cortés, on behalf of the Spanish Crown, initiated the process of territorial conquest and cultural colonization of a vast area that would come to be known for the three centuries following as New Spain. Mexico City, built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán—former capital of the Mexica Empire—became, from 1521, the political, administrative, economic, and cultural center of an ever expanding territory that, by the outbreak of the pro-independence movement in 1810, ran from Costa Rica to the south of the United States. During this long and complex process of imposition and adaptation, of destruction and construction, both architecture and urban planning played strategic roles. Beyond their primary function, cities and buildings represented instruments of territorial domination and became material expressions of the new culture. Through architecture, fundamental aspects of the social and economic order were implanted; with them, religious practices were arranged and artistic expressions channeled. Thus, for three centuries, architecture and urban planning transformed the natural and cultural space according to a new order. Taking into consideration that the Crown, from the outset, decreed that Spaniards should establish themselves in permanent settlements and that Indians should be incorporated into the European productive system and be subjected to the ways of Christian life, then the importance of understanding the development of viceregal architecture, both in its formal characteristics and in its functions and meanings, is clearly made manifest. Viceregal architecture was dodged once the aesthetic ideals of Neoclassicism started spreading and was considered, after independence, the material expression of Spanish dominance; thus, it remained excluded from every historical and artistic consideration until the end of the 19th century, when different factors contributed to a new appreciation. Romanticism—filled with nationalistic ideals and a fascination with the picturesque—together with the impact of the Arts and Crafts movement, fostered interest in local culture expressions. Added to that, the first forms of a national history started integrating the New Spanish past as part of its national identity, not without conflict. Ever since, New Spanish architecture has been studied in Mexican, American, and Spanish academic circles; to a lesser extent, by European and South American academics as well. Consequently, for the last 130 years, it has largely been defined through diverse historical interpretations, resulting from the crossing of different methods and perspectives. The English version of this article was compiled with assistance from Amanda Zamuner.

General Histories

Within the context of art history, New Spanish architecture began to occupy a defined space beginning in the 1950s. A broad approach to the art and architecture of the region and the continent has emerged since then, offered, from varied perspectives, by different series of studies. As for the content, those general stories can be classified into two main groups. On the one hand, studies on Viceregal Architecture provide an overall vision on the vast artistic production of what, in terms of the Ancien Regime, constituted the Spanish overseas empire. On the other hand, general histories on New Spanish Architecture, restricted to the territorial frame of the viceroyalty, offer different interpretations, both thematic and chronological, giving account of a territory that was broad and complex because of its diversity.

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